By Richard Foss, Cuisine & Culture Columnist
Want a strawberry in February, beets in July, or winter squash on Memorial Day? Thanks to cheap shipping from places with different climates, you can get them all. In the 20th century we almost abolished seasonality and in the 21st we’ve just about finished it off.
Still, there are still a few things that are only available for a brief period every year. One of them is a large green chilé grown in the Hatch Valley in New Mexico. Something about the environment there creates a unique flavor that is enhanced by roasting, and when Hatch chilés ripen at the end of summer it is the occasion for day-long celebrations. These used to be confined to New Mexico, but chefs elsewhere have recently joined the fun. One is Arthur Gonzalez, a Los Angeles-area native who moved to Santa Fe for a job at the famous Geronimo restaurant. Gonzalez talks about his first encounter with Hatch chilés in the tones most people use for religious awakenings.
“On my first weekend I went to the farmer’s market and smelled this amazing aroma. I followed my nose to a place where a guy was roasting Hatch chilés, chopping them up, and serving them on a fresh tortilla,” Gonzalez said. “I had tried all sorts of chilé preparations and sauces, but that was different from anything else I had experienced. It was magical, smoky and a little sweet, a little earthy. My eyes lit up and I just said, ‘Whoah, that’s good stuff.’ I’d had pasillas, jalapeños, serranos, lots of other chilés, but this had its own unique flavor.”
He was so curious about this ingredient that he drove 250 miles to the valley, where they came from and there, learned more about them.
“The Hatch Valley was like the Napa of chilés, all green with the vines filled with fruit,” he said. “Most farmers believe that the minerals in the Rio Grande water make the difference. It could be that, or something about the micro-climate there, or the expertise of growers who have been raising it for generations, but there’s something special about those chilés.”
As Gonzalez studied them, he found that there is considerable variation even within the valley where Hatch chilés grow.
“There’s a place called Horseman’s Haven that is famous for really spicy green chili and they get their chilés from the same field every year because no others are hot enough,” he said. “Hatches range from mild to very hot, and you get the ones you like. As they ripen and get a tinge of red they become sweeter. When it’s half red and half green they call them pintos, like the spotted horse. I prefer them that way, with just a touch of red on them, because you get a deeper flavor.”
Whether mild or hot, they’re probably the only chilé that is never used raw.
“Roasting sweetens it and gives it just a touch of smokiness and in New Mexico whole families have roast parties,” he said. “They set up big tables and Grandma makes a lot of food while the family roasts, skins, and bags chilés to be frozen so they can use them throughout the year. At roast party dinners they just chop up the fresh chilés and put them in a bowl on the table, and you just add them to whatever you’re eating … they also make a runny enchilada-type sauce that they use in all sorts of ways.”
One of the few places to try freshly roasted Hatches is Panxa Cocina in Long Beach, where Gonzalez is chef-partner. There he draws on his Oaxacan mother’s heritage and his interest in South American flavors, and during the month of September the theme is Hatch chilés.
“At Panxa I base dishes on my heritage, on other Latin cuisines that intrigue me, and flavors from New Mexico, which I love,” he said. “In New Mexico the food is simple, with very intense flavors. This month I’ve included Hatchchilés in our cornbread, we’re offering a Hatch enchilada sauce, and I’m stuffing the chilés like a relleno. One item you won’t see anywhere else is the blue corn quesadilla with squash blossoms and Hatch chilé jam. The quesadilla is Oaxacan style, so it looks like an empanada, which is how my grandmother used to make them. We made a beautiful queso fresco using buttermilk, and it goes great in there. I’m working on an aguachilé, and I think the Hatch flavor will go very well in that.”
Other featured items include a chicken fried steak with Hatch sauce, a surprisingly delicate Hatch relleno stuffed with prawns, walnuts, and corn, and even a desert of a chilé-stuffed sopapilla pastry with smoky vanilla ice cream. You can finish with a cocktail made with Hatch infused vodka with lime and hibiscus. It’s daring to theme a monthly menu around an item that most Californians don’t know, but Gonzalez obviously is an evangelist for this ingredient.
You might think that Gonzalez wishes he could experiment with Hatch chilés all year, but he doesn’t. He enjoys the anticipation as he gets phone calls from farmers telling him how close they are to ripening, and he cherishes working with one of the few truly seasonal ingredients. Perhaps remembering how he learned about them himself, he is even duplicating the New Mexico chilé parties.
“This year we’re having a public chilé roast, so customers can experience the process,” he said. “When I roasted chilés last year behind my other restaurant Roe, all the cooks came out asking, ‘What’s that smell? It’s intoxicating!’ It’s something you get on every corner in New Mexico at this time of year, and for just a little while, in a few places, you get it in California.”
The chilé roasts will be from 12 to 4 p.m. Sept. 15 and 16.
Details: (562) 433-7999; Panxacocina.com
Venue: Panxa Cocina is at 3937 E. Broadway in Long Beach.